How to Tell if Your Child is Using Drugs?
Learn the Signs of Drug Use in Teens
How to Tell if Your Child is Using Drugs?
Learn the Signs of Drug Use in Teens
Table of Contents
How Common is Drug Use by Teens?
According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol is the most commonly used drug by 8th-Graders, 12Th-Graders, and College Students.1
of 8th-Graders Use Alcohol
of 12th-Graders Use Alcohol
of College Students Use Alcohol
Marijuana is the next most common drug.
of 8th-Graders Use Marijuana
of 12th-Graders Use Marijuana
of College Students Use Marijuana
Is it Getting Better?
The good news is that according to the 2018 Monitoring the Future Survey, teenage drug abuse, aside from marijuana use, is at its lowest level in over two decades.2 Among 12th graders, past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana has declined by 30 percent since 2013. According to the survey, substances at historically low levels of use among teenagers include cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, prescription opioids, meth, sedatives and ketamine.
The bad news, many teenagers are still abusing drugs, including more than 12% of high school seniors. We will explore the signs of drug use in teens, including risk factors for teenage drug abuse, signs of teen addiction, and what parents can do if they believe their child is abusing drugs.
Drug Use and the Adolescent Brain
Teenagers demonstrate plenty of mental ability with regard to rational decision making and understanding right versus wrong. However, the teenage brain does not have fully-developed control processes. This leads to teens to respond to stressful or emotional decisions with impulsiveness. They fail to consider the consequences of their actions.3
16 to 17 year old children are more:
- Vulnerable to peer pressure
- Reactive to stress
- Focused on short-term gratification rather than long-term consequences
Adolescence is a normal time a child to experiment. Over 50% of young people will try an illegal drug as a teenager, and nearly 100% will have tried alcohol, tobacco, or both at least once before they reach legal age.
Surveys show that for Americans aged 15-20, 12.2% meet the definition of an alcohol dependence disorder. This percentage is much higher in comparison to other age groups. For example, the rate of alcohol dependence was at 4.1% for those in the age range of 30-34.
Vulnerability to Drug Use: Children vs. Adults
Neuro-developmental studies show that a teenager’s developing prefrontal cortex leads to more emotional and impulsive decision-making. Adolescents also show a lower sensitivity to intoxication than adults due to higher metabolic rates allowing them to consume higher amounts of alcohol. These factors, combined with hormones that increase social competitiveness, promote drug use in children looking for social approval from their peers.
Teen Drug Use and Memory
A study shows that teens with alcohol use disorder show 10% smaller volume in the hippocampus (the main brain structure for memory) and displayed greater difficulty retrieving memories than peers without a history of alcoholism.
Marijuana Use and Brain Development
Researchers at Rosalind Franklin University School of Medicine looked at the effect of constant exposure to cannabinoids had on brain development. They found that during early adolescence, the growth of the child’s prefrontal cortex is slowed. This leads to changes in decision-making, personality, and social behavior.4
Most Abused Substances by Teens
Any use of substances by teenagers is considered abuse. The brain continues to develop into the 20’s, making substance use dangerous to brain development. According to the Monitoring the Future Study, the following are the most used substances by teenagers:
With more than half of high school seniors admitting to drinking in the past year, alcohol remains the most abused substance by teenagers.
Approximately 36% of high school seniors admit to using marijuana in the past year and 22% of high school seniors admitting using it during the past month. Marijuana is the only substance to see an increase in use over the years.
Cigarette use is on a decline, however, the use of vaping or other e-cigarette products is increasing. This may be due in part to a misconception that vaping is somehow safer than cigarettes when there is no evidence of that.
Around 4% of high school seniors admitted to using Adderall in the last year. Although there is no evidence to support the idea that Adderall will improve academic or athletic performance, teenagers sometimes still believe it will help.
This category of substances includes Benzodiazepines like Ativan, Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium as well as Barbiturates like Phenobarbital and butalbital. Sleep Medications like Ambien and Lunesta are also a tranquilizer. More than 6 percent of high school seniors admit to tranquilizer use in the last year.
Detox from this category of substances is particularly dangerous due to increased risk of seizure.
Also known as “synthetic marijuana” these dangerous substances are perceived by some as “safe” when in fact it can cause violence and aggression along with paranoia and anxiety. Around 3% of high school seniors have used spice in the last year.
Sometimes people think that prescriptions are somehow safer because they are prescribed by a Doctor. The truth is, painkillers such as OxyContin are just as dangerous. Around 2 percent of high school seniors admit to using Oxycontin in the last year.
Around 4% of students admit to having ever abused inhalants, however around 1% admit to using them in the last year and less than 1% admit to abuse in the last month.
Psychoactive substances include LAD, Peyote, Mescaline, Mushrooms and DMT. Around 6% of high schoolers admit to having ever used hallucinogens.
Approximately 3% of high school seniors admit to abusing cough medicine in the past year. Abusing this substance can result in brain damage and nausea.
The Rise of Vaping
Vaping is a type of electronic nicotine delivery system. They are used to simulate smoking using vapor instead of smoke. These devices have been marketed to teens as a safer alternative to cigarettes. Vape companies even use flavoring in the vapor that would appeal to children, but this practice has been curtailed by the U.S. Government.
How Many Children Vape? 5
- Over 5 million children reported vaping in 2019.
- 33% of users vape daily
- Children are almost 20 times more likely to vape than adults
- Vaping in children rose nearly 2000% from 2010-2020
- Over 70% of high school smokers use both cigarettes and vape
According to a National Institutes of Health article, Dr. Richard Miech of the University of Michigan stated “vaping is reversing hard-fought declines in the number of adolescents who use nicotine . . . these results suggest that vaping is leading youth into nicotine use and nicotine addiction, not away from it.”6
Teen Drug Abuse, Dependence, and Addiction
Drug abuse, addiction, and dependence are not the same things, and understanding the differences can help you determine the level of help your child needs if they are abusing substances.
Drug abuse is the act of using drugs or alcohol in a way that causes problems, such as relationship problems, troubles in school, behavioral problems, and mental or physical illnesses.
This impact on brain development can increase the risk of cognitive, behavioral, or emotional problems later on.
Dependence occurs when you need one or more drugs to function. Dependence develops as the brain changes to compensate for the chemical changes in the brain caused by drug use.
This produces tolerance. Tolerance happens when a person no longer responds to a drug in the way they did at first. So it takes a higher dose of the drug to achieve the same effect as when the person first used it. which means that increasingly larger doses are required to get the same effects.
Addiction is a term that means the compulsive physiological need for and use of a habit-forming substance and includes:
- well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal
When struggling with an addiction, you may find it challenging to quit even though you want to or try to.
Addiction affects the structures and functions of the brain and causes changes in thought and behavior patterns. Addiction almost always has underlying causes, which commonly include chronic stress, a history of trauma or a mental illness like anxiety, depression or an eating disorder.
Substance Use Disorder Criteria
Drug abuse, addiction, and dependence are now diagnosed under the umbrella of “substance use disorder”, which is characterized as mild, moderate, or severe, depending on how many of the following criteria are met:
Risk Factors for Teenage Drug Abuse
Some biological and environmental factors may increase your child’s risk of abusing drugs or alcohol. These include:
Family History of Drug or Alcohol Abuse
Genetics account for about half of the risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction.
Impulse Control Problems
Teens who have trouble controlling their impulses are likely to engage in risky behaviors, including abusing drugs or alcohol.
Children who have experienced trauma, such as witnessing death or violence, being a victim of physical or sexual abuse, or surviving a natural disaster, are at a higher risk for substance abuse problems later on. A number of therapies can help reduce the impact of trauma.
Mental Health Problems
Anxiety, depression, ADHD, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses increase the risk of self-medicating, substance abuse, and addiction. Getting treatment for these conditions can help reduce the risk.
Peer Pressure and Pop Culture
Teenagers frequently must deal with peer pressure and popular culture, which often glamorizes drug abuse. Teens who are stressed or unhappy may turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to feel better. Some teens abuse drugs out of boredom or rebellion and some use it in order to feel more confident or “cooler.”
Myths About Teenage Drug Use
Unfortunately, teenagers are likely to be sorely misinformed about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. For example, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one-fourth of all teenagers believe that prescription drugs are safe because they’re prescribed by a doctor.8
But as the opioid crisis has proven, this couldn’t be any farther from the truth. Similarly, some teens believe marijuana is safe, but the fact is that teenage marijuana abuse can knock as many as eight points off an IQ, later on.
Spending quality time with your child and educating your child early on about the realities of drugs and alcohol abuse are two of the most powerful deterrents for teenage drug abuse.
Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in Teenagers
Signs of Teenage Drug Use
If you suspect your child is using drugs or alcohol, you’ve probably seen some signs that raise red flags. You can listen to your instincts, and should also follow them up with concrete, observable proof, which will help you confront your teenager about the abuse.
Signs that your teen may be abusing drugs or alcohol include:
Where Could My Teen Hide Drugs?
If you are concerned your child may be hiding substances, there are some frequent locations and tricks used to conceal substance use.
Unused consoles or controllers have empty spaces that are sometimes used to conceal substances. The battery compartment of the unused controller is frequently used by teenagers as a secret spot.
Stash cans can be designed into any regular looking item that you may see in your child’s room. They can be anything from a shaving can, to WD- 40 to Jiffy. If you notice an unmoving Mountain dew can, it may be garbage, or it may be hiding substances.
Writing utensils like pens, markers, or highlighters all have some empty space that can be used to conceal drugs. Of course, items like books may also be hollowed out to contain objects or substances as well.
Beauty and Hygiene Items
Items such as lipsticks and lip glosses can be hollowed out or used to conceal substances. Feminine hygiene items have also been used to conceal substance.
Outside or En Route
Consider your child’s regular routine. Do they drive to school? They may be concealing substance in the vehicle. Do they walk to school or other activities?
They may choose to hide substances in places they frequently pass or know will remain undisturbed outside.
Consequences of Teenage Drug Use
When the developing body uses substances that change chemical functions, long-term effects can appear as a result of the abuse.
One of the consequences is a decline in academic performance. When substance use has a negative impact on a teen’s performance in school, it could also impact opportunities in the future such as acceptance into higher education.
Substance use is linked to poor judgment in social interactions, including sexual activity and impaired driving. When substances are used as a social lubricant from an early age, it can be more challenging later on for a person to develop social connections without substances. A citation due to substance abuse such as impaired driving or criminal charges could also have long-lasting effects.
Drug use also increases the risk of developing a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety.
The Health Consequences
Depending on the drug of choice, the severity of abuse, and existing physical health factors, a teenager is at risk of addiction, serious impairment, or death. Here is a list of commonly abused drugs and the associated health risks:7
Opioids (including prescription painkillers)
Respiratory issues or death from overdose.
Impaired memory, learning, problem-solving, and concentration. Higher risk of psychosis later in life like paranoia, hallucinations, and schizophrenia.
Electronic Cigarettes (Vaping)
Despite being smoke-free, those who vape are still exposed to harmful substances similar to those found in traditional cigarettes including the addictive substance Nicotine.
Heart attack, stroke, and seizures.
Damage to the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys.
Liver or heart failure.
Generation RX: The New Teen High
What to Do if Your Teen is Using Drugs
The most important thing you can do if you suspect your child is abusing drugs is to learn everything you can about substance use disorders and the specific drug your teen is abusing. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is an invaluable, trustworthy resource for information about drug abuse and specific drugs.9
Talk to Your Teen
Armed with information and keeping in mind the signs of drug abuse you’ve noticed in your child, have a talk with your teen. Stay calm. Explain that you suspect there has been drug use, and point out the evidence.
Expect that your teen may deny using, or that they may become angry or defensive. Remain calm and express your love for your child.
Before your conversation, decide on the consequences of drug abuse and the rules moving forward. Choose consequences and rules that are realistic and enforceable.
If your child abuses drugs chronically or has developed an addiction to drugs or alcohol, professional help may be necessary.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction almost always requires professional help to overcome.10
Treatment works for most people who engage with their program and stay in treatment for an adequate period of time.
Treatment helps people develop skills and strategies needed to cope with powerful triggers like stress, negative emotions, and cravings. It helps show purpose and meaning in a life without drugs or alcohol, and it helps teach how to have fun and enjoy life without using.
Convey Love and Hope
Hope is the foundation of recovery from a substance use disorder, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.11
Hope is the belief that a better future is possible, and conveying this hope to your child is very important.
Let your child know that you love them and want the best for them, and that you believe they can find happiness in a life without using drugs or alcohol.
Joining a support group for parents whose teens have a substance use disorder can help you cope with your own difficult emotions, and it can help you find resources for helping your child recover from a substance use disorder.
There are many ways to find a support group online or in-person, including talking to a doctor, counselor, social worker, or treatment center.
Talking to Your Teen About Drug Use
The earlier you start the conversation about drugs, and the more open the conversation with your teenage, the more likely your teenager will make healthy choices when presented with the opportunity to try drugs.
Discuss the reasons why they shouldn’t use drugs
This is not a time to use scare tactics. Rather, emphasize how drug use takes away from the things that are important to your teen, whether that’s appearance, sports, driving, or school grades.
Choose a time when everyone is calm and sober
It’s not ideal to have a conversation about drugs when you or your teen is angry or under the influence of substances. These circumstances prevent effective communication.
Discuss media messages
Try to understand what your teen sees and hears through social media, TV, movies, and songs that glamorize drug use. Prepare to talk about your own drug use.
It is normal for your teen to ask you about your own experience with drugs. If you chose not to use drugs, explain why you made that choice. If you did use drugs, be sure to share the lessons you learned from those experiences.
Strategize ways to resist peer pressure
Brainstorm together about ways they can turn down offers of drugs in social situations. This will prepare them to make healthy choices on their own. See it from your teen’s perspective.
This is not a one-way conversation, so avoid lecturing your teenager. It is more effective to listen to your teen’s opinions and questions about drugs. Show your teen that they can be open and honesty with you.
Additional Prevention Tips
While talking with your teenager about drug use can go a long way in preventing their own premature experimentation, there are many more ways you can help your child avoid drug use:13
Lead by Example
Use prescription drugs only as directed. Don’t use illicit drugs. If you drink, do so in moderation. Show your child what a healthy lifestyle looks like.
Be Aware of Your Child's Activities
Pay attention to where your teen spends their time. Encourage adult-supervised activities that they are interested in.
Know Your Teen's Friends
If your child’s friends use drugs, your child might feel more pressure to use drugs too. Getting to know your teen’s friends also opens the opportunity to foster trust and open communication between you and your teen.
Enforce Rules and Consequences
Clearly communicate your family rules and the consequences of not following those rules. Consistency is key.
Keep Track of Prescription Drugs
Stay aware of all medications in your home.
When It's Time for Addiction Treatment
Principles of Effective Treatment
The National Institute on Drug Abuse outlines an extensive list of guiding principles for effective treatment.14
These principles include but are not limited to the following:
- Addiction is a complex but treatable disease that affects brain function and behavior
- No single treatment is appropriate for everyone suffering from addiction
- Treatment needs to be readily available
- Effective treatment treats more than just a person’s drug abuse
- It is critical to remain in treatment for an adequate period of time
- A person’s treatment plan must be assessed continually and modified as appropriate
- Treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective
What to Look for in a Treatment Program
If your teenager suffers from addiction, effective treatment will be vital to ending the drug abuse for the short-term while also preventing relapse for the long-term. Choosing the right treatment program for your child will give them the best chance at a successful recovery.
High-Quality Treatment Program Checklist:
- Emphasis on evidence-based therapies
- Individualized treatment plan for your teen
- Encouraged family involvement
- Staff that is fully licensed and trained
- Comfortable and safe facility environment
- Aftercare plan for ongoing success
- Adheres to the NIDA Principles of Effective Treatment (described above)